By Worth Allen
Reprinted from The Leader, Spring 2002, Vol. 17, No. 2
In a quest to make wilderness areas economically profitable, the United States has created a network of roads that permeates roughly 94 percent of our nation's total land. Our National Parks are thoroughly fragmented by pavement, and our National Forests are filled with 380,000 miles of roads-enough to circle the entire globe fifteen times. Seeing how few major tracts of expansive, undisturbed wilderness remained in our nation prompted former President Clinton to create the landmark Roadless Initiative shortly before leaving office last January.
This initiative placed a permanent ban on the construction of new roads in 58.5 million acres of currently roadless national forest land. Affecting one quarter of the land under the Forest Service's jurisdiction, the ban covered 2.2 percent of America's 2.5 billion acres. As one wilderness advocate pointed out, "In the war over federal land management between the timber industry and environmentalists, there are no greater spoils than the last remaining roadless areas." Before finalizing the initiative, the Forest Service held a 60-day public comment period, during which time 600 meetings were held across the country. A record 1.7 million people commented in writing, nearly quadrupling the previous record of public opinion responses. According to the Forest Service, "letters of support arrived in U-Hauls, boxes, and mail-sacks" from every corner of the nation. A full 95 percent of the public response favored a ban on the construction of new roads in roadless areas.
Despite this overwhelming public support, the Roadless Initiative appears to be in trouble. President Bush and Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton are quietly taking steps that could eventually lead to a repeal of the entire initiative. Upon taking office, Bush immediately halted implementation of the policy, allowing road building to continue unabated while the new administration re-evaluated its position. This past December, interim directives were put in place that cut straight to the heart of Clinton's intentions. In short, the new directives minimize old growth protection in roadless areas, abolish the initiative's integral component requiring a "compelling need" to build a road in roadless areas, and abolish all protections afforded to small wilderness regions that are adjacent to main roadless areas. The directives also give the Forest Service nearly complete discretion about whether environmental impact statements will be needed before building a road into protected territory.
NOLS strongly supports measures like the Roadless Initiative that protect our remaining tracts of relatively undisturbed wildlands. Not only are these areas our classrooms, they provide important habitat for wildlife, solitude for humans, clean water for nearby towns, and contribute immeasurably to our nation's biodiversity. While we support efforts to increase the efficiency of the Forest Service, our primary concern is active protection of public wilderness resources.